Originally appeared in Situationist Times No.5
and Orders |
On treason, the mass action of reproduction, and the great artistic mass effect
by Asger Jorn
The eminent American art critic Harold Rosenberg called attention some years ago to the peculiar fact that the whole team of individualists who, as the sharpshooters of art during and after the war had raised American art to an international level, had without transition been transformed into the country's most responsible academicians and had never formed the cultural oppositional group which is called the avant-garde. These teddy-boys in Davy Crockett style had suddenly become official generals in red coats. The transitional form which the French general Lafayette had created by gathering the sharpshooters in a resistance movement which severed America from England had not come into existence, and the so-called Abstract Expressionism, which was to appear as a purely American affair, had no longer any possibility of operating as an artistically propelling factor in society.
The parallelism with conditions in Europe as regards the resistance movement against Nazism is striking. De Gaulle's tenacity in sticking to his starting-point in the French resistance movement, however communistic it might be, has shown that he is capable of doing the same in his own country as his countryman Lafayette did for the U.S.A. This is the cause of the helpless attitude which today characterizes the policy of the American and the British towards France.
The reason why I wish to emphasize this parallelism is that I belong to that part of the resistance movement which was officially declared to be treasonable after the war by the Danish Prime Minister, and that today I belong to those who spend the years following both as sharpshooters and as members of French avant-gardism, and now, by another avant-gardism, under the leadership of, amongst others, Jørgen Nash and J.J.Thorsen, in a feature-article in Politiken 14/8, I am charged with a new treason, this time against humanity as well as myself because I permit the bourgeoisie to isolate art as an elevated and admirable phenomenon. The time has now come when unique art, which today is a barely allowable luxury on the periphery of welfare, is to be definitively exterminated for the benefit of a "ritual status". In principle this ritualistic art is not anti anything at all, but as an alternative or antiposition has extreme individualism and wants to create a dialogue which as it is put so beautifully, can extend our field of cognition.
I have no doubt that this is a sincere opinion, but if this extension is to begin, it is first necessary to establish what, with this formulation, is already within the field of our experiences. What can be known beforehand about the character of this dialogue when one side of the alternative declares not to be anti anything at all?
It means that the programme is an absolute and definitive eradication of the contrast forming the alternative. The purpose of the dialogue is ruthless war. The reason I write about this is that through the years I have created some material which, without my name being mentioned, enters into the argument in favour of this declaration of war against myself, so that the uninformed could assume that I am backing the setting up of this alternative, which I have never accepted and whose chief effects I have exposed for several years through theoretical publications because I knew that its official formulation was a necessary consequence of the historical and political development during the post-war years.
It may perhaps be justly maintained that it is I who have provoked this situation. I have done so from the point of view that what raises man above the animal is his faculty to foresee an external event and provide against it at a stage at which he is not yet subject to the fatalistic destiny of these external events. The respite which in this way is given to man is in many cases extremely short, but may be extended by means of experiments, by man, as it were, playing with fire. This Promethean task, this Loke position, I have not only myself accepted, but made it a Danish item of a programme for art when, before Cobra was started, I introduced the group of "Helhesten" ('the Ghost Horse') as a Danish movement for experimental art. This name later became the programmatic name proper of Cobra. Throughout the years this experimental programme has to a higher and higher degree become opposed to the methods of Modernism. Today the point has been reached where it remains to be seen whether it can exist independently.
In his book "Kunst og Etik" ('Art and Ethics') Professor Løgstrup points out that Anglo-Saxon-Scandinavian and Continental-European philosophy have never in the course of history been so independent of and indifferent to each other as they are today. It is the widening of this gulf which, as a Scandinavian in Paris, I have witnessed during these years. Only by leaning on Bohr's complementary theory and going more and more into detail, I have been able to experience this schism without giving up either of the sides, and without splitting my mind. Today I am ready to give the French a dignified and kindly answer, consisting of the presentation of 10,000 years of Scandinavian folk art in 24 volumes, each with 256 pages of wonderful illustrations, published by Det Skandinaviske Akademi for Kunstnerisk Forskning. I have accepted the fact that my time as a sharpshooter is drawing towards its close and that conditions in Scandinavia are at least as severe as in the U.S.A. I must accept the red coat of the academician, but I do so only on condition that the academy is one which permits me to expand and corroborate the perspective on which I have been working throughout my whole life, making independent a definite view of art. As such an academy did not exist, I had to found it myself.
My agreement to give up my liberty in this way is made from an extremely realistic point of view. In my triolectics I have shown that every alternative is set up in such a way that out of its elements two others can always be combined, so that in any situation and at any time there are three alternatives or contrasts among which to make a choice.
As regards myself, I long ago came to a decision concerning the alternative: free art or ritual, in my book "Guldhorn og Lykkehjul" ('Gold Horn and Wheel of Fortune') and I have very profitably collaborated with Paolo Marinotti on this very problem, which forms the programme of his international centre for art and custom (customs and rituals). The fact that he as the only person in the world, in the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, who has attached the main importance to Danish art, is by no means due to my effort, but to his personal instinctive and intelligent impression that we in the North have something very significant and valuable to give the world on this very point. My knowledge that this was correct, but also my knowledge of our ignorence of the nature of this valuable contribution, has on the contrary made me extremely cautious and reserved in this collaboration.
The alternative set-up from American quarters as presented by the so-called Co-Ritus Group may seem hopelessly comical, but in coming years it will force itself upon us with a power which will terrify many people. With the 24 volumes about Scandinavian art I want to show the world that this alternative is invalid for Scandinavia, has always been so, and will remain so as long as there is anything called Scandinavian culture at all. I have not undergone for thirty years the sufferings which have caused us to be unable to set up such an alternative as is absolutely valid in other modern civilized countries in order suddenly to be involved in a pro or con which I have become resigned to ignore in ourselves. If the Scandinavians do so, we have become spiritual slaves in a conflict which we have the means to suppress.
So-called "open" art is based on two new realizations. I formulated one in the second number of "Helhesten" ('The Ghost Horse') as the conclusion of the article "Intime banaliteter", which was re-printed in the catalogue for the exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, where they wanted to award me a prize. By reading the article on "Anti-art or New Rituals" some people perhaps will understand for what I was to be used, and why I refused. In 1940 I concluded: "The spectator does not exist any more," in part inspired by Bohr's well-known thesis, in part by the fact that an art periodical of this name had ceased publication, auguring a new attitude towards art. Bohr's cognition consisted in the fact that pure objective intuition or observation was impossible, that every observation consumes the object. But this by no means justifies the identification of observation with consumption, as is done in the antagonism to which we are introduced. Pure science no longer exists on the day when we in our conceptual world desist from maintaining the possibility of a contrast between observation and consumption or use.
The other realization was worked out, but formulated only orally by the present Professor Egill Jacobsen. It was discussed, and today, imported from America, has been named the "key to 'open' art". He disclosed a wealth of poetical experiences which his father invented to animate a dull painting of a lake in a wood. I have elsewhere shown that this method is typically Scandinavian and in the Viking Age was called Husdrapa. As early as the Migration Period it came to Lombardy, where this free poetic interpretation was called Titoii and became the name of what today is called captions, especially when these are not given to the picture until they are finished, as I myself do, but as Klee also practised. If this is conceived as an artistic possibility, it is a value which perhaps nobody has utilized to the same degree as the great Swedish art historian Jonny Roosval, if we disregard purely artistic talents like Ole Sarvig.
A possibility may become a new freedom or a new compulsion. The latter is expressed by the view that one absolutely must or shall. This new artistic freedom is flow returned to us as a moral compulsion in the form: "It must be oneself who on meeting the thing is provoked to attribute something to it, i.e. to experience oneself in it regardless of whether the thing is a piece of pop art or not. It must necessarily be added: The artist has no right to put anything of himself into his art, as it prevents the spectator from completely experiencing himself. The work of art must be wholly the obedient tool of the spectator. It is the spectator who decides what the work of art is to be like. This must mean that the artist is forbidden to pretend to be the creator of his work and to sign this with his name. When the Lombards' power as an independent factor was broken in Italy by the Pope with the assistance of the French, this prohibition was adopted at the Council of Nicaea in the middle of the ninth century. By this, Arianism was also officially stamped out of the Christian church, but this did not prevent Scandinavia throughout the Middle Ages to produce more signed works than the whole of the rest of Europe, a tradition which we know from runic stones and from the gold horn.
In order to fight for a renewal it is necessary to take a stand in the present time. This standpoint characterized by the time is harmless as long as the work itself is a renewal, but the followers do not become innovators by taking over these standpoints, only by continuing the renewal of their predecessors on the basis of new standpoints. This has brought me into a false position as regards two giants in Danish cultural renewal, viz. Broby-Johansen and Poul Henningsen. Today they will probably understand that one must either in an orthodox way adopt their standpoint, but then maintain that their influence on Danish cultural life was a failure, which only made matters worse, or they must admit that what they started, or rather continued, could not be continued by us, except from completely different standpoints because the approach to the problems had changed. My teacher, Fernand Legér, raged against my standpoints as much as Axel Jørgensen, and I can by no means maintain that Antonin Artaud or André Breton ever agreed with me. But it may be stated with certainty that they would never voluntarily have submitted to being used as the foundation of the artistic programme outlined in the theory of ritual or conventional art. André Breton last winter clearly cried off here in Paris, and together with Richard Mortensen, the painter, I have declared our solidarity with him on that point.
It is maintained that various forms of "open" art today constitute a programmatic joint front yearning to obtain a ritual status and to be liberated from the enclosed, lonely position. The reverse is the case. It is the powers that be who today need an artistic status, indeed a direct economic profit into the bargain. When the description of these points of view begins with a sympathetic mention of the Beatles, the statements of the British ministers about their astonishing importance for the British economic balance as regards foreign countries should not be left out, for there's the rub: the profit of artistic reproduction.
Artists who constantly and systematically have felt it their duty to appear as popular entertainers in daily organs for information and entertainment with cheap ideas can only look silly the day they maintain that artists live an isolated life with-out contact with the masses, if, indeed, they them-selves want to be considered as artists. The fact that they will one day discover that this activity has not given them any prestige or appreciable economic status has long been known to the rest of us. If, after this blundering, they hit upon something which they maintain to be a solid basis, it is only natural that it should be subjected to a critical examination so that, apart from all platitudes, we can see where it leads. This basis is said to be the ritual. Any rite is a repetition, and if the demand for renewal is removed from art, imitation has the same value as the original. This does not prevent the fact, however, that there is always, and always must be, an original. It only makes one feel morally justified in concealing it. This right has existed as long as creative art has been working, so to say, "illegally", but then, when all the artists are dead, the history of art comes and arranges everything according to the principle of originality. In America a situation may become a happening, and John Cage can write important books about silence without mentioning the scandal in connexion with Guy Debord's film "Hurlement en faveur de Sade", which has lent the same pause effects to the film "Hiroshima, mon amour". When the latter film in a Danish literary periodical was once singled out as a proof that originality and recognition can very well go together, one could not help smiling and understand why all this talk would one day historically be characterized as derived provincialism with no function at all but to inflate things, what scholars term amplification. The fact that this amplification is an essential function in artistic effort, does not alter matters. Only 'one must avoid inflating the balloon so much that it bursts.
It is not John Cage who has invented happenings or events, as it is now termed. It is Søren Kierkegaard, though, indeed, with another label. Here we are at the fundamental problem, which we in Scandinavia cannot today venture to disregard, and which has caused me to secure such solid collaborators for the Scandinavian academy as Erik Lundberg in Sweden, Guttorm Gjessing in Norway, and P.V.Glob in Denmark, besides a good many others. In the ritual programme there is much talk of the central perspective, the centralization principle. The communication problem is mentioned as the crisis problem of our age, the fear of a spiritual display of power instead of instrumentality, and a development which does not oppose Nazism and threatens the mental health of the people. But I do not believe that the mental health of a people can be preserved if the artistic independence of the individual is disclaimed. National Socialism is a collective system based on absolute national solidarity and community. But any community must, if it is to function, have an administration. Everybody who has any knowledge of culture knows that this administration is based on and completely depends on a ritual status, and that this status has always a tendency to become more and more centralized. The peak of this ritual status is in Scandinavia the royal family and in the South the Catholic Papal Court.
If artists start experimenting with new accidental rituals, only one of two things can happen. Either the established ritual status must begin to be broken up from the inside, or this activity must be integrated as a fruitful component, a renewal of the status already established. Indeed, the experiment in Russia shows that even an apparent upheaval is very slowly adapted to the fundamental structure of the traditional status. It appears that the possibilities of variation of such a ritual status are actually much smaller than would have been supposed. We may borrow the pattern from the ritual status in a foreign culture, and this is no doubt necessary to get out of a period of stagnation, but neither the Scandinavians nor the North Americans have so far been willing to recognize the pattern which they will sooner or later inevitably fall back upon.
This free and accidental ritual-creating activity will therefore soon be over. It is too dangerous for a community to allow amateurs to fumble about with ritual experiments on a large scale. The free existential period in St.Germain lasted exactly until the professional prostitutes moved in; then it had to clear out. This will also happen to the American pop artists, who like Marie Antoinette play at democracy and instead of bread offer people giant cakes of foam rubber. The same thing happened to Majakovsky and, in a certain way, to Marinetti.
It is only necessary to think of the book "Fin de Copenhague", which has been such a great success and which could never have been planned except on the basis of Broby-Johansen's book-craft enlarged to American size, - and to compare the dates in order to understand to how high a degree Denmark and Scandinavian culture are directly involved in this whole complex of new-created problems.
Nothing new is created except on the basis of dissatisfaction with the existing state of things, that is, a critical attitude. "Fin de Copenhague" is critical of publicity. American pop art is not. It is publicity art and we need only to wait and see for whom and for what. But any novelty is in itself a critique of the established order. What then does this tendency criticize? It criticizes the personal relation to the work of art created. But if this relation is not personal, then it must be administered by others. The reason J.J. Thorsen in "Paletten" criticized the Danish government for not using my art at international exhibitions without my consent is that this national-socialization of art as well as the artist is a necessary conclusion of the tendency which it represents. The reason why, as a counter-stroke to this tendency, I have insisted that the 24 volumes about Scandinavian art be published by a private foundation, independent of mercantile as well as political dispositions, founded on the development of a much needed economic basis for Scandinavian art research, is that I have not been able to find any other durable basis to preserve the liberal attitude towards art in Scandinavia which is necessary for its continuing free growth. I think that any thoughtful person today is qualified to judge whether I have calculated the situation correctly, whether the work I have done here was loss of time or worth while.
It is no mere coincidence that American artists of today believe that they can extricate themselves from the central perspective by painting targets instead. The centralization plan has now only been freed from any unnecessary distracting encumbrance. In this connexion it is a question of the mass and of communication problems, of electronic brains and machines which can make a decision. A simple demand for linguistic soberness is sufficient to dissolve these complexes. If it is acknowledged that quantity and mass are two fundamentally different things, the former being expressed in quotas, the latter in quanta, we shall indeed see two opposite economic systems and realize that the system of value of modern industry is exclusively determined by quotas built on the value of the greatest quantity of like objects produced, while the valuation of the more and more compact mass effect characterizes politics. The result will invariably become an increasing conflict. Communication is defined by the establishment of a dialogue, or what is called a reversible situation. The telephone and the train are means of communication. The radio, the press, and art, on the whole, are not. They are irreversible, one-sided means of Communication. A piece of information only becomes a communication when it is answered by a piece of counter-information. Only then has communication been established. Art and information can only give orders. These orders can only be controlled and neutralized by counter-orders. Therefore a discussion on the radio is only a stage play. A control cannot think, cannot make decisions, however complicated it is.
It can only conclude, finish, or infer. It can never start anything at alI, make what we call a decision. Only when the consequences of this realization have been generally understood and recognized, will it be possible to start a conversation about the question of what can be done about the elementary artistic problems that open before modern man today.
In principle a feature article cannot be answered. The above is not an answer to what has been stated in "Anti-art or Rituals". It is quite another report on the same subject. There is no possibility of the two standpoints coming to an understanding. It is a choice between two alternatives, unless one does not want to commit oneself. One does not, of course, need to until the day one is forced to do so. That day will soon come; therefore I emphasize that my opinion of intelligence is that it is the ability, beyond the prejudices necessary to all of us, to be able to adopt an active attitude to a new and unexpected situation before it forces itself upon us to such a degree that we are unable to utilize it.
Perhaps it will be maintained that the critical situation mentioned here is self-created, that it is I who have provoked it all. This would, however, be an overestimation of my powers to a degree for which I cannot take the responsibility. One can accelerate certain events and in this way demonstrate what will happen later on a larger scale. Having experienced what happened before the war, I have not, however, any appreciable confidence in any essential significance of such demonstrations. It would, however, be awkward if I omitted to clarify my attitude in this matter.